A View into an Outdoor Cat's Life

Jennifer Coates, DVM
Published: October 10, 2012
A View into an Outdoor Cat's Life

I admit it; I don’t always follow my own advice. For example, I dutifully counsel my clients to keep their cats indoors, citing health benefits for the cats themselves (and the lower veterinary fees that result) as well as the goal of protecting native wildlife. But my cat goes outside.

Before everyone gets up in arms about my admitted hypocrisy, I should say that Vicky only goes out in our back yard and hasn’t left it since the time she was caught in a neighbor’s live trap that was baited with cat food (don’t ask). She is also not a big hunter, though she will occasionally ambush mice that are unwise enough to crawl under the fence from our neighbor’s compost pile. For me, it comes down to a risk-benefit analysis. Vicky lives to stalk the fence line, warm herself on the hot concrete of our patio, and sleep under the rose bush. I’m reluctant to take those joys away from her and willing to accept the relatively small risk her behavior entails.

I still worry though, especially during those few times when she doesn’t immediately come when called. The results of research performed by the University of Georgia and the National Geographic Society sheds some light on the question, "What are cats up to when they go outside?"

Scientists attached "kitty cams" to 60 owned cats that went outside in the Athens, GA area; 55 provided enough video footage to be included in the study. Analysis of the footage showed that

  • 44% of the cats hunted wildlife. The most common prey items were reptiles, mammals, invertebrates, and birds, in that order, with most kills occurring during the warm months of the year.
  • Cats that did hunt averaged two kills per week and only 23% of the prey items were brought home (28% were eaten and 49% were left at the kill site).
  • 85% of the cats performed at least one "risky" behavior, including crossing roads (45%), encountering strange cats (25%), eating and drinking substances away from home (25%), exploring storm drain systems (20%), and entering crawlspaces where they could become trapped (20%).
  • Amusingly, four cats were recorded going into houses that were not their own for food and/or affection.

Does this make me feel better or worse about my decision to let Vicky go outside? I’m not sure. I can convince myself that she is in the majority of cats that don’t hunt wildlife, but that 85% "risky behavior" number is alarming, particularly since one of the videos on the Kitty Cams UGA site shows a cat leaping over a fence that looks almost exactly like ours.

If you’ve ever wondered what cats do outside, the Kitty cams research really does open "a window into the world of free-roaming cats."

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Image: kjcimagery / via Shutterstock

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